Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Email, Telephones and Private Life

Viewed from the perspective of 50ish person, born in the 1960’s, modern life has changed in many ways, many of them quite positive.  Some of the more invasive features of the last twenty years are cellular telephones and email.  While they have clearly made the world smaller, they have whittled down our private life to almost nothing, unfortunately.

Before their invention and popularization, communication was through a telephone, line-linked object generally limited to three a house.  Because you had to sit next to it to speak, its location was of prime importance. In other words, if you were not next to a telephone, you were free or cutoff, according to your perspective.  If by chance people had to make a phone call outside their residence, they had to find a phone booth and carry small change or phone tokens, depending on the country.  As for international communication, both long distance phone calls and telegraphs were expensive and were generally used to inform people of deaths and births. Since international or national written correspondence took time to reach its addressee, there was simply more time between messages.

By contrast today, thanks to cellular technology, people can call from anywhere, even in remote wilderness areas.  Since the cost is minor in terms of people’s overall budget, people use the telephone even (or mainly) when they have nothing to say.  The classic example is the Sunday train in Israel, filled with soldiers on their way to their bases and buzzing with intelligent dialogue of this nature: “What’s up?  I’m on way to the base?  And you? See you there.”  This sheer mindlessness can go for two straight hours as the bored soldiers contacts each person in his or her directory.  Friends sit together and talk with other people on their telephone at the same time.

For us freelancers, the Internet and email have created constant and instant linkage with customers throughout the world as well as an unending, frantic pace of written communication.  Psychologically, my business day only ends when I arbitrarily decide that I am no longer obliged to respond to emails at a certain hour.  I fully understand the logic behind the new law proposal in France closing the employer/employee cellular communication at the end of the working day.  Slavery was made illegal a few centuries ago.

So, the revolution in communication has brought us all together, which is rather nice sometimes.  On the other hand, it has created a huge mass of noise, with too few quiet spots to think and enjoy the sunset or your thoughts.  Personally, for business purposes, I cannot live without email.  However, in terms of cellular phone use, I remain a happy dinosaur, not even knowing my own mobile phone number.  I try to protect my private time and enjoy the benefits of both worlds, the old and the new.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The What, The Where, but the Why?

Objects gain names for many reasons. These range from orders from God, at least according to the Bible, to poor translation (the poor White Rhino is actually grey but is quite wide, relative to its more common cousin).  Sometimes, the location of its source is so identified with the product that the place name becomes the product.  As time passes, if the object is much more famous than its place of birth, its “mother” becomes completely forgotten.

A prime example of this can be seen in clothes. In the winter, women can be seen wearing jerseys and Kashmir sweaters, depending on income of course, without them giving a thought about England and Pakistan/India.  By contrast, the guy wearing the Bermudas and the girl wearing the bikini talking to each other have no thoughts of distant tropical islands except possibly as a great place to go on vacation and get to know each other better.

At the bar, customers sipping cognac, champagne and Porto are enjoying their drinks completely ignoring that it is quite probable that they were produced in distant regions in France and Portugal.  Granted, there is a running dispute whether the latter should refer to the place or type of grape, but the French would insist on the first.  However, here at least, there is a connection between the beverage and its source of production.  By contrast, the patrons at the table swilling their Bronxes and Manhattans justifiably cannot see any connection between the name of their alcoholic concoctions and those boroughs in New York.  For that matter, if the designated driver is drinking coffee in a china cup, does s/he make any connection to the designers of the Great Wall?  It seems doubtful.

The world of cheese is filled with namesakes.  How many people know where Gorgonzola, Edam, Gruyere and Cheshire cheese are made, to name just a few?  To be fair, the answers are Italy, Holland, France, and England.  There is a significantly greater chance that a person has tasted all those cheeses than visited those places.

Occasionally, history seeps down and enters common language, linking obscure localities to complex ideas. If you have had your Waterloo, your game is over. On the other hand, after your Dunquerke, you will rise again, but it may take many marathon sessions to do it.  If you fail, you may get sent to Timbuktu, i.e. very far away.  I strongly suspect that most people could not find any of those locations on a map or even identify in which country they are located.

 Yet, it may not be that important to make the connection.  As long as we understand what item the name represents, the knowledge of its origin, however fascinating, is essentially a matter of intellectual curiosity and pride.  On the other hand, many otherwise forgotten villages owe their fame to their special product.  To quote Mark Twain, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Loaded Words

Some medicinal plants can be both helpful and harmful.  It is a only a matter of correct use.  Likewise, many words that are appropriate and acceptable in one context should be absolutely avoided on other contexts. In other words, they carry a linguistic load that adds an unwanted meaning to the sentence.

One example is the word exploit.  It is clear and socially acceptable that every mine owner wants to exploit the maximum from that mine.  However, should s/he want to exploit the coal miners, it might lead to a strike or bad publicity since the word exploit has become a synonym for abuse when it comes to people.  Instead, an effective manager should try to get the best results from his/her personnel.  The same would apply to collaboration.  Two businesses or people may collaborate, that is work together, to achieve a result, often a highly effective and applauded effort.  By contrast, collaboration in politics implies the stench of working with the enemy and preferring short-term over national interest as many individuals and companies did during World War II under the German occupation.  Political leaders would better choose bipartisan politics.

Similarly, if a person has discriminating taste in wine or food, s/he can detect class and quality, which is quite good.  Should the person discriminate in the matter of people, the matter could end up in a court of law as discrimination in employment is illegal.  It would be better to have a good eye for people.  Likewise, every attorney knows and writes that a given relief does not prejudice any other relief available according to the contract and by law.  This means that just because I kick you out of the apartment for not paying rent does not stop me from demanding damages.  By contrast, an apartment owner that refuses to rent to non-whites shows prejudice, which again may have him/her in court again.

On a less criminal level, lawyers and prostitutes, quite a funny combination, have clients.  Most other businesses have customers precisely to maintain a good reputation.  Who would want to be associated with those professions, even if most people use either or both during their lifetime.  For those people who are careful buyers, If you buy something cheap at a swap meet or 5 & 10 shop, this is okay because expectations of quality are low in any case.  However, if you say that a product is cheap, this refers not only to the price but also to the lack of quality, which is not exactly a complement on your shopping skills.  By contrast, there is nothing wrong with buying inexpensive goods.  Persians and Scots would only admire you.

So, watch out when using these words.  You may end up saying something you did not mean and getting a bad name or worse.  A word to the wise is sufficient.